Using Cover Crops for Feed Production

Harvesting Rye ( Taylor Leach )

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It’s no secret that cover crops have surged in popularity over the years. Traditionally, these crops have been planted as a conservation effort to help improve soil health, reduce rain runoff and prevent invasive weed species from taking root. While all of these environmental benefits still hold true, some farmers have started to grow cover crops for a different beneficial reason: feed production

“There are plants that we’ve considered as nothing more than a cover crop that we’re actually finding feeds really, really well for dairy cattle,” says Brendon Blank, a Certified Forage Specialist with Byron Seed.  “I think there is a lot that has been overlooked when it comes to feeding cover crops because we have our tunnel vision focused on corn silage and alfalfa.”

Tough growing conditions wreaked havoc on traditional feed sources during the summer of 2019, leaving many farmers with poor feed quality and reduced yield. However, some producers were able to take advantage of prevent plant acers to help make up for some of the forage that was lost. 

“A lot of people planted cover crops last year because there was basically a forage crisis,” Blank says. “And a lot of times, for people to try something new there has to be a crisis that requires you to try something else. I believe that last year’s crisis is going to change the way that farmers feed their cows for a long time because people were forced to try something different and a lot of people saw a really good response from it.”

According to Frank Wardynski, a ruminant extension educator for Michigan State University, cover crops have assisted crop farmers for years by helping to capture soil nutrients, preserve moisture and generally improve soil health. Typically, these crops are grown during fallow time between the main cash crops grown on the farm. Livestock producers can reap these same conservation benefits while capturing forage nutrients by grazing or harvesting as hay/silage, he explains.

As more producers share their success stories of growing cover crops to feed their cattle, other producers have been willing to dip their toes into feeding cover crops for forage production as well. If you remain on the cover crop fence, here are few things to consider:

Environmental Benefits

“There are a lot of environmental benefits centered around cover crops, even if you are going to harvest it for feed,” Blank says. 

Some of these benefits include suppressing invasive weeds, increasing organic matter along with improving the infiltration and retention of water and nutrients.

“Monoculture legumes such as soybeans and alfalfa can cause your soil to become extremely dense,” Blank says. “If you can interseed your alfalfa with a cover crop variety, such as red clover or a good cool season grass, the cover crop will assist the alfalfa by infiltrating rainwater much, much faster than a monoculture alfalfa field will. This can dramatically reduce rainfall runoff and can help soak up more of that rain into the soil.” 

Additionally, the use of cover crops can help minimize the chance of runoff occurring when manure is spread.

“If you build your forage system around using cover crops, you can diversify your manure spreading window,” Blank says. “Typically, there are only certain times of the year when you can spread manure. But if you can spread manure over a green growing cover crop, that is an excellent way for the plant to absorb nutrients.”

Other cover crops may be planted with intentions of improving soil structure in no-till systems, according to Wardynski. This can be especially useful on clay soils. Crops such as oilseed radish, turnips, soybeans and field peas have the ability to break compaction and prepare the soil for a more favorable seed bed in no-till systems.

Nutritional Benefits

Along with a slew of environmental benefits, cover crops offer up some impressive nutritional benefits as well. 

“Over the last number of years, growing a good stand of alfalfa has become more of a challenge, and that has gotten a lot of people to look at some of these alternative forage crops,” Blank says. “Today, many varieties of cover crops have better fiber digestibility than alfalfa does.”

Grazing or harvesting cover crops offers livestock producers the opportunity to capture highly digestible nutrients, Wardynski explains.

“Harvesting winter rye as hay or silage allows high quality feed resources to be captured and is more beneficial to soil health than leaving the field lay fallow through the winter months,” he says.

Additionally, using a variety of cover crop species on the land not only helps to improve forage yield, but it can also have a very positive effect on the soil system, according to Blank. Different plants will attract different microbes to the soil, adding more diversity and improving the soil’s biology. This is similar to a cow’s rumen. The more variety provided to an animal, the more efficient and stable the rumen and biological system becomes. 

“If you look at what the dairy industry was 20 to 30 years ago compared to what it is now, it's dramatically different,” Blank says. “The way we feed cows, the way we house our cows, the way we milk our cows and treat our cows, is all very different. Yet we're still growing corn and alfalfa very similar to what we were 30 years ago. Yes, there have been genetic improvements, but the system as a whole is somewhat stagnant. It's time for an overhaul and I think we are right on the forefront of starting that.”

Getting Started

When it comes time to put cover crop seed in the ground, there are a few things one should consider before diving head first into the ‘cover crop for feed production world.’

“My biggest caution would be saying ‘I think I want to try this,’ but then not having a long-term plan as to how you will rotate and diversify your crops,” Blank says. “You need to be making plans now for what you will grow next season.”

Another big factor when feeding cover crops is figuring out what group of animals you are going to feed them to. Will it be fed to the lactating herd? The dry cows? Or are you going to use it for heifer feed? 

Different varieties of cover crops have different harvest windows, and when you harvest can drastically affect their fiber digestibility, according to Blank. He recommends working with your seed provider and nutritionist to help formulate a cover crop nutrition plan for the animals you plan to feed this forage to.

Diversify Your Fields

While growing cover crops for feed production may not be in the best interest for every dairy producer, it’s growth in popularity and impressive results have made it a tempting option for those who would like to diversify their business. 

“You hear talk about how you need to have your farm diversified. How you need to raise dairy, beef, do custom work and have all of these different income streams,” Blank says. “Well, that gets to be difficult. The way I look at it, you can still do just dairy but have diversity in your cropping system. That’s going to bring a lot more stability and resiliency to your operation then a standard cropping system would.”

Instead of putting all of your eggs into one basket, Blank recommends looking at growing cover crops to help expand your nutrition program and to minimize the risk of other forage crops not performing well.

“If you’re making a living off the stock market, you’re not going to invest everything into one or two items. You’re going to be well diversified,” Blank says. “We have a lot of farms that are making their living off of very, very little diversity. They usually only have two crops that they’re 100% dependent on to make their living, and that’s just not stable. Last year showed us how fragile that can be.”

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